8 G.K. Chesterton once called America "a nation with the soul of a church." He was referring, in part, to the habitual tendency of Americans to cast political and social events as scenes in the drama of salvation. From the start America's story was a religious story. In the 1630s English Puritans represented their journey across the Atlantic to America as the exodus of a New Israel out of Old World slavery into a promised land of milk and honey. And through the centuries, the story of the American Israel would serve as our nation's most powerful and long-lasting myth.
But to black Americans the nation was not a New Israel but the old Egypt, condemned to sure destruction unless she let God's people go. The existence of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and racism contradicted the mythic identity of Americans as a chosen people.
African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism. Perhaps the most troubling was this: "If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?" Suffering-slave Christianity stood as a prophetic condemnation of America's obsession with power, status, and possessions. African-American Christians perceived in American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion. Divine election brings not preeminence, elevation, and glory, but--as black Christians know all too well--humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen, in this perspective, means joining company not with the powerful and the rich but with those who suffer: the outcast, the poor, and the despised.
Out of this prophetic tradition the civil-rights movement emerged in the 1960s to offer one of the most powerful critiques of American society, including not only Jim Crow in the South but eventually what Martin Luther King Jr. would call the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism." King, the most eloquent spokesman of the movement, clearly drew upon the resources of black religious protest, but he also drew upon the critical thought and action of a variety of figures from other traditions, such as Thoreau, Gandhi, Rauschenbusch, and of course the Hebrew prophets. The prominent presence of such figures as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, and Roman Catholic priests and nuns in the front lines of civil-rights marches demonstrated the deep moral resonance that moved peoples of different faiths to protest injustice, based upon the age-old call of their traditions to seek justice and show mercy. Religions throughout history have motivated some to stand on the margins of society as critics of the dominant cultural and religious values.
Albert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the author of Slave Religion and A Sorrowful Joy.
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